The Power of Lipstick


Why Chanel Dubofsky thinks lipstick may have been a substitute for religion in her family.

Age 10: My mother, grandmother, and I buy lipstick at a now extinct five and dime. The tubes are white and plastic. I get a bright pink one that lives in the back of my top dresser drawer until, years later, I throw it away, unopened.

Age 22: After a meeting of the poetry club in college, a friend informs me that the lipstick I am wearing is the wrong color. I feel self conscious, but continue to wear it.

Age 31: On a whim, I attempt to quit wearing lipstick. I last one week.

In retrospect, it may have been a substitute for religion, or perhaps that’s just the way I want to remember it. A memory is such a fickle thing. My mother kept a tube of lipstick in her purse, one in the glove compartment (along with a strange amount of straws and napkins), another in her desk drawer at work. My grandmother’s lipstick lived in the top drawer of her dresser; she had rows of them, in various colors, in expensive-looking gold cylinders, beside the hand creams and perfume bottles. Reapplying after eating was mandatory; not doing so meant walking around with color buried into the cracks of lips—faded, sad.

Once I started wearing lipstick myself, it became like underwear—I couldn’t leave the house without it. Other kinds of makeup were taboo; I was explicitly forbidden to wear mascara or foundation, and I was reminded about this in the same voice my mother used to warn me not to shave my legs above the knee.

These days, I always buy the same color, I reapply with fervor, and I think about genetics. The women on my mother’s side of the family all have (had) the same, similarly indecipherable handwriting and the inclination and ability to walk for miles. In my case, I ardently claim feminist politics, and although ultimately, my mother would have agreed and even helped me form many of those opinions, the realities of her life—low income, single, chronically ill—intercepted her willingness to act on those politics. I was still supposed to have a boyfriend (my sexuality wasn’t up for consideration), and that boyfriend was still expected to pay for dates.

Sometimes I look at photographs of my mother, almost all of which were taken well before she died when I was 19, and search for clues. We have similar facial features, for sure, but she has long, thin hands and is well over five feet tall. I am barely five feet and rounder than she would have preferred. At the age I am now, she was married, had already had her thyroid removed, and was desperate to have a baby. In all the photos, her lips are stained with color, and as I thumb through the photos, so are mine.

I attempt to quit lipstick. When I leave the house, I imagine myself looking scarily pale, exhausted, my lips the same color as my face. I feel empty, blank. People are troubled by my sickly appearance; they wonder how long I have left. How did this happen? I quit shaving years ago, without much thought as to how other people would feel about the site of a skirt exposing my hairy, remorseless legs. But with lipstick, I am stuck. It remains a hurdle and a source of contemplation. Sometimes, my lips feel giant, waxy, garish, they crowd my face. In a given day, I am guaranteed to have lipstick on my teeth and to be reminded of it. (I haven’t decided if I want people to point this out or not.) The self consciousness is perpetual.

In my house growing up, surrounded by lipstick, I never stopped to wonder what might have been behind our familial obsession. Only now, with the distance of years and the peculiar safety of death, have I managed to realize the relentless magnitude of its impact on me and how complicated and endless it is to unpack. Three Jewish women, of various generations, building a life together, each struggling to understand the other and failing, applying color to the mouths that rescue and define them.

Maybe it was about being noticed or, more likely, about being seen. Maybe it was an attempt to reclaim a certain femininity after years of illness and struggle. No matter what, the reasons were theirs, unique, regardless of genetics, to each of them. My own decisions will be based on my realities, knowing that there is really only so far one can get from one’s own DNA.

About the Author

Chanel DubofskyChanel Dubofsky
Chanel Dubofsky currently owns one tube of lipstick. She blogs regularly at the Sisterhood, Jewschool, Oy Gay, and at her own blog, Diverge ( Her writing has been published at Staccato, Quick Fiction, Zeek, DOGZplot, Glossolalia, Jewcy, the Lilith Blog, and Haaretz. She lives in New York City.

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